Hal Ashby on the set of Harold and Maude (1970)
Hal Ashby on the set of Harold and Maude (1971)

With the exception of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and John Cassavetes, I can’t think of many other directors who have had more influence on modern American cinema in recent years than Hal Ashby. And yet, Ashby’s name still remains relatively unknown among the general film-going public. This seems partially due to the fact that all of the other directors I mentioned have been the subject of many books and formal studies. But since his early death in 1988 at age 59, Ashby’s troubled life has remained the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Thankfully that’s all changed with the release of Nick Dawson’s new book Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel recently published by the University of Kentucky Press. This fascinating account of the life and death of Hal Ashby is the first biography written about the director and it’s an important as well as informative read.

Hal Ashby is often remembered for his rebellious spirit, drug addiction and outsider status in Hollywood during the ‘70s. But Being Hal Ashby debunks a lot of the myths that have surrounded the director for years. It also sheds light on the creative choices Ashby made throughout his career without sensationalizing the darker aspects of his life. I really appreciated the tone of Nick Dawson’s book since it shied away from the tabloid style of so many other current biographies. The writer’s self-assured and thoughtful approach to his subject is really refreshing.

The ’70s proved to be an extremely productive decade for many Hollywood filmmakers, but few directors had such an incredible run of first-rate movies throughout the ’70s as Hal Ashby. In contrast to some of his more somber contemporaries, Ashby’s films managed to reflect the underlying anxiety felt in post-’60s America while still celebrating the country’s boundless optimism. Between 1970 and 1971 Hal Ashby directed The Landlord (1971), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979). But before becoming one of the decade’s greatest filmmakers, Ashby was an Oscar winning editor who worked on some of the best films of the ‘60s including The Children’s Hour (1961), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Loved One (1965), The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).

Being Hal Ashby provides readers with a well-rounded examination of Ashby’s career and doesn’t bypass the films he continued to make into the ‘80s before succumbing to the cancer that finally killed him. It’s obvious that Nick Dawson has a deep appreciation of the director’s work and his enthusiasm is contagious. After finishing Being Hal Ashby I was inspired to seek out some of the director’s later films such as Lookin’ to Get Out (1982) and 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) that I may have dismissed in the past. I suspect that I’ll now view them with new appreciation and respect. When a book inspires me to reevaluate my own opinions about a filmmaker’s career, it’s well worth recommending.

Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel retails for $37.50, but you can currently purchase copies of the book at <a href="Amazon for just $30. Whether you’re a fan of Hal Ashby and his films or just interested in what Hollywood was like in the ‘70s; Being Hal Ashby makes for some great summer reading.

Recommended Links:
– You can read an excerpt from Being Hal Ashby at the Film In Focus Website
Being Hal Ashby @ Twitter offers news & updates about the book

8 thoughts on “Being Hal Ashby

  1. Ashby isn’t even that exalted among cinephiles. I never tire of recommending Bound for Glory to people and have gotten used to the so-so reaction the movie gets from them. I don’t care, I still recommend it, I think it’s one of the greatest movies of the seventies and Carradine is superb. One of my other favorite movies from the seventies is Being There and The Last Detail also ranks highly.

    As for Looking to Get Out it’s quality doesn’t match his seventies work but I got to be honest, I watched it over and over on cable in the early eighties and loved it, though I can’t imagine too many other people would. I haven’t seen it since so please don’t base this recommendation on anything other than nostalgia but I’d like to see it again myself to see if I’ll like it as much now.

  2. Greg – I suppose we could call him a “cult” filmmaker since people as well as film critics, etc. who like him tend to LOVE him and those who don’t are often very dismissive. In that regard he reminds of someone like John Huston. I’m always utterly baffled when I come across someone who claims to really enjoy film and they don’t like Huston or Ashby. In all honesty, my gut reaction to that is – something is wrong with them or they really don’t like movies. (harsh maybe, but true)

    As I mentioned above, I think his run of films from 71-79 is just superb. My own favorites are Harold & Maude and Being There, but they’re all good films with some really great moments in them. Bound for Glory is such a beautiful looking movie that I can’t imagine someone having a so-so reaction to it.

    I’m especially fond of the way Ashby seemed able to find beauty in unexpected places and he had great compassion for his characters, no matter how odd or unlikeable they were. Obviously that came from his own feelings of being an “outsider.” And even though his sense of humor was pitch black, I think his films are filled with really sweet & uplifting moments, but never sappy. He was simply one of the best American filmmakers of the ’70s IMO.

  3. I haven’t seen Harold and Maude in years. I overloaded on it in my teens. I swear I must have watched it thirty times. Now I think it’s been long enough to give it another look but I think I could still recall it scene by scene anyway. It’s a great movie.

    As for Bound for Glory I’ll usually get the same old non-analytical crap from people like, “It’s kind of slow” or something along those lines that just turns me off in seconds.

    And speaking of Huston, he made another of my favorites from the seventies, Fat City. I just watched it again about three months ago and it still utterly wowed me. I might even give it a write up soon because it keeps tumbling around in my head.

  4. Thanks for turning me on to this new book about Ashby. I think he’s one of the greats, and his sensibilities are probably something you would not find in today’s films except in the independent market. Being There is one of my favorite all-time films, BTW.

  5. Greg – There’s few things worse than hearing someone say “It’s kinda slow” about a movie I like (okay, maybe “pretentious” is the worst insult I can think of that’s hurled at films I like) but an Ashby film is “slow”? What do these people do when they’re faced with epics like Seven Samurai or Andrey Rublyov? Oh yea… they don’t watch them.

    I think Huston made a lot of good films in the ’70s that he doesn’t get credit for. The Man Who Would Be King and Wise Blood are personal favorites of mine, but Fat City and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean are also great movies. When I hear someone dismiss Huston it literally makes my blood boil. I’m a Huston fanatic.

    Taylor – I hope you give it a read. I think you’ll enjoy it. Personally I’ve got a lot of problems with what’s called “indy” cinema these days. For example, I don’t consider Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson to be indy filmmakers right now and they’re both heavily influenced by Ashby. Generally speaking though, I think Ashby’s influence is incredibly prevalent all across the board.

    Mike Nichols is another director who is hugely influential right now. I can’t believe I forgot to mention him.

  6. Kimberly, you’re right about the so-called “independent market.” But there’s still some good stuff out there in spite of the shrinking dollars for bonafide independent movies … I would cite Frozen River and Wendy & Lucy as a couple of recent examples …

    And the book — already ordered it!

  7. I love Judge Roy Bean, and just recently saw “Under the Volcano” and liked it a lot … why is Huston so under appreciated, anyway?

  8. Taylor – Glad you ordered the book!

    I haven’t seen the films you mentioned but I’m curious about Wendy & Lucy. It’s impossible for me to associate a big name like Michelle Williams with indy filmmaking though. When you have an Oscar nominated actress in your movie it sort of wipes away the “indy” label in my opinion.

    Rick – Critics. Huston’s a perfect example of a director who’s reputation has suffered for years thanks to the critical response to his work. Critics started really tearing him apart in the ’60s and throughout the ’70s because thy didn’t like or understand many of his films and it became easy to dismiss him. Sadly critics as well as film scholars, etc. continue to parrot a lot of garbage about his body of work. It’s shameful really since I think he’s one of America’s greatest filmmakers. Things are slowly changing now that Criterion has decided he’s worthy of attention so I hope his film career gets better evaluated over time.

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